David Hoffmann, courtesy Christina Ricucci

Christina Ricucci on Her Life with Lyme Disease

Two years ago, Christina Ricucci, then 15, was living every dancer's dream. She was training intensively at Dmitri Kulev Classical Ballet Academy, Westside Dance Project and Murrieta Dance Project in Southern California. She earned top awards at competitions, including Teen Best Dancer at The Dance Awards Nationals in 2013. (She even landed on a cover of Dance Spirit as the 2014 Cover Model Search winner.)

As Teen Best Dancer, Christina spent a year traveling to conventions every weekend. But her grueling schedule started taking its toll—or at least that's what she assumed when she started feeling out of sorts after a few months. As it turns out, Christina wasn't just tired or rundown: While on a family trip to Mexico in the fall of 2013, she'd unknowingly contracted Lyme disease. Here's the scary—and ultimately triumphant—story of Christina's battle with the illness. (As told to Alison Feller)


Touring with JUMP and NUVO was amazing. But by the end of October 2013, I realized I wasn't feeling like myself. I was growing increasingly tired, and I'd go from being really happy to feeling depressed and angry, and then back to happy. My mind also felt blurry—I couldn't read, concentrate or even look at my phone.

I've always had issues with my thyroid and endocrine system: When I was 8, I was diagnosed with Hashimoto's disease and hypothyroidism, which basically means my metabolism runs super slowly. It's always been manageable—I took one pill a day to keep my thyroid regulated. So when I started feeling sick, I figured it was my Hashimoto's acting up, or maybe just something puberty-related.

But when my symptoms didn't go away, I went to a naturopath—someone who specializes in holistic medicine. She ran some tests that indicated imbalances with my thyroid. She prescribed herbal remedies to help regulate it. On top of the thyroid medication (which a doctor had prescribed), I was taking about 20 pills every day.

For the next few months, I continued to take the pills, under the impression I was suffering because of my out-of-control thyroid. Soon, however, I got worse. My whole body ached and I had sharp pain in my knees and hips. I couldn't even do a battement. I knew this wasn't a side effect of Hashimoto's—it felt different from anything I'd ever experienced.

By summer 2014, I was seeing multiple doctors and undergoing many tests every week. My family and I did everything we could think of—I took vitamins, I followed a strict healthy diet—but nothing helped.

Finally, my doctor brought up Lyme disease. It's not always easy to diagnose; Lyme hides in your body and tricks it into thinking you have something else. But my doctor noticed infection markers in my blood. She ran two specific blood tests for Lyme, which came back positive, and a few days after my 16th birthday—almost a full year after I first started feeling sick—I was diagnosed with Lyme disease.

During this process, I continued to dance. I refused to let my sickness take dance away from me. But I was completely overworking myself, going to conventions every weekend, competing with my studio and taking regular classes and privates during the week. When I got the diagnosis, I was pretty scared about what it meant for my dancing. I didn't want my life to change.

Lyme affects everyone differently. For me, it infected my brain—that's why I was experiencing personality shifts and had excruciating headaches—as well as my joints and muscles. By January 2015, I'd finally hit my breaking point. I could barely walk. So I stopped dancing. It was time for me to take care of my body.

In the hospital (courtesy Ricucci)

My treatment was aggressive and went beyond taking pills. After trying many different procedures—including six months of ineffective oral antibiotics—I got an antibiotic PICC line, a tube that went into my arm and transmitted the medicine directly through my veins up to my heart. For the first week, I couldn't move my arm because it was so sore. I was also exhausted. I drove roughly four hours twice a week to Las Vegas to see my doctor and get blood tests, and that was on top of daily doses of strong antibiotics through my PICC line, plus 90-minute hyperbaric treatments multiple times every week to help kill bacteria in my brain and bloodstream.

The side effects weren't fun, but the good news was that it was working. After about a month, the pain in my hips and joints started to go away, and blood tests showed that my body was beginning to heal. I got my PICC line out three months later—and I felt ready to dance again! I took my first ballet class on April 30. I was excited to be back, even though I was so sore!

My personality also began returning to normal. It was like I woke up one morning and things were back in perspective. I saw what I went through and realized I could help other people by raising awareness about the disease.

When I announced on Instagram that I was being treated for Lyme, I received so much support. I felt really loved, and I'm so thankful. At first I was terrified to tell people; I didn't know if they'd make fun of me, and I didn't want anyone to think I was asking for sympathy.

Getting diagnosed with Lyme disease changed my life and my outlook. Initially I was mad about the whole situation. If I'd been diagnosed correctly and treated sooner, my recovery might have been smoother. But I've accepted that all I can do is keep getting better and stronger. I'm dancing as much as I can. I'm focused on getting my technique back to where it was. I'm not going to waste time being sad.


Lyme Disease 101

How do you get Lyme disease?

It's transmitted by a tick bite, usually during the warmer months. In most cases, the infected tick must be attached to your body for more than a day and a half in order for Lyme to occur.

What are the symptoms?

The earliest sign is usually a rash

that looks like a bull's-eye at the site of the bite. Then, the symptoms vary by person. You may feel fatigued, or have a headache, lack of appetite, muscle and joint aches and a fever. While not everyone develops a rash, the conventional thought is that if you don't have a rash after being bitten, it's unlikely you have Lyme disease.

How is it treated?

Because it's caused by a bacterium, Lyme disease is typically treated with a course of antibiotics, especially if it's detected early. Most cases aren't life threatening, and it's not contagious. Treating the symptoms with painkillers or muscle relaxants can help as well.

How can you prevent it?

While there's no vaccine, the best way to avoid contracting Lyme disease is

to avoid being bitten by a tick. Wear long-sleeved clothing and a hat with

a rim whenever you're in a tick-heavy area, and when you go inside, carefully examine your entire body for ticks. Promptly remove any you see. If you've been bitten, or if a rash develops, see a doctor—and bring the tick with you if possible.

Consultant: Dr. Ole Vielemeyer, MD, is an assistant professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College in NYC.

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Photo by Lee Gumbs, graphic design by Nyamekye Smith. Makeup by James Perez, styling by Joey Thao, styling assistance by John Jimenez, hair by Nina Mercado, braids by Champagne Jones. Deja Riley as stand-in model throughout.

Taja Riley: On Her Own Terms

Everyone has a Taja Riley story. Janet Jackson has a Taja story. (When Taja was just 17 and was hired to perform alongside her, Janet Jackson picked Taja up in a limo and they spent a day—seven hours, to be exact—together at a hair salon.) Rihanna has a Taja story. (She hand-selected Taja for her Savage X Fenty show.) Parris Goebel, Wade Robson, Mia Michaels, Joe Lanteri, Ne-Yo, Nicole Scherzinger, and the casts of "The X Factor" and "Glee" all have Taja stories. Brian Friedman, Taja's longtime mentor, cites "out-of-this-world" Taja as one of his greatest and earliest inspirations. And Travis Wall, who grew up dancing with and choreographing for Taja at his mother's studio, Denise Wall's Dance Energy in Virginia Beach, VA, has said, "There's not a stage big enough for a star as big as Taja Riley." So what does a star do when no stage will suffice? She builds her own.

That's precisely what 28-year-old Taja is doing now. In 2021, Taja will introduce the world to her company, TKO Quarantainment, a wildly ambitious project that combines all of her greatest passions and talents. And, in doing so, she's revealing a deeply personal behind-the-stage-and-screen look into her life, involving a cult, a broken engagement, a ton of self-awareness, and a whole lotta hustle.


The Cult

The word "prodigy" gets thrown around a lot in the dance world. It's a word that works for Taja. At 15, she won the National Teen Female Outstanding Dancer title at New York City Dance Alliance, and by 16, she had moved from Virginia Beach to Los Angeles, ready and willing to go pro with her dance dreams. She earned her high school diploma through homeschooling, and quickly started booking work with stars including Janet Jackson, Nicki Minaj, Beyoncé, Bruno Mars, Brandy, Pitbull, 50 Cent, Justin Bieber, Missy Elliott, and Kanye West. She danced on "The X Factor," "Glee," and "Dancing with the Stars." She became a faculty member at NYCDA, and traveled the world performing and teaching classes.

By the end of 2016, Taja's road got bumpy. In spite of that lengthy—and growing—list of accomplishments, her personal life was heading toward what she now calls her rock bottom. She wasn't dancing much, in favor of DJ-ing, and then she reconnected with her first childhood love. The man she thought was "the one." He wasn't. And, she later learned, he was in a cult. Despite suspect and controlling behaviors—he wouldn't let her listen to music out loud, even though it was her livelihood—they began living together in the ministry homes with the rest of the cult, which she ended up joining. He proposed. God told him to, he insisted.

Six months later, he called off the wedding. It was her wake-up call. "Getting out of that situation was pretty traumatic," Taja says. "There was a suicide attempt. I was dealing with depression. I had to literally start over, and I had negative $113 in my bank account." She sold her DJ equipment, earned just enough money to buy a used car (which she slept in), and signed up to work on Postmates, DoorDash, and any third-party app she could find. "It was like I was in a video game. Game over happens after making it to such a high level. I had gotten to eight or nine levels out of 10, and I lost—and it took away all my coins. Back to level one."

Photo by Lee Gumbs

The Confidence

As Taja worked to rebuild her life and career, she also rediscovered herself. Part of that self-discovery was figuring out, who is Taja, really? "I started developing more of a spiritual center for myself," Taja says. "Rituals to help me find balance, and really emphasizing my mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual health. I started looking at what worked, and what needed to happen within all facets of my life beyond dance."

She decided to go to London. Within two weeks of moving, she had signed with an agency, booked a movie, and found a long-term Airbnb. After another week, she had booked a job dancing for P!nk at the BRIT Awards. The work was nonstop, and she was teaching classes at three different studios in the city. "I built a fan base, a friend base, and a network," she says. "I felt peace."

In the summer of 2019, choreographer Parris Goebel called, hoping to check Taja's availability to perform with Rihanna at her Savage X Fenty show. Taja submitted her photos and a video, and a few days later, Parris called back. Rihanna loved Taja—and handpicked her to come on board. It would be Taja's first trip back to L.A.

That job and that trip marked a major turning point in Taja's life. Parris told Taja she needed to be okay with showing skin for this job, and Taja said she was, onstage. But they wanted everyone dressed for the show in rehearsal; Parris wanted everyone to feel like it was a comfortable space. "I'm looking around the room and seeing women of all different shapes, sizes, colors," Taja says. "Cellulite, eczema, hairy legs. And I'm in love in that moment. Being present and just seeing all of us and being like, I support you at whatever stage you're in, whatever phase you're in."

After that experience, Taja developed a new comfortability with herself. "I was usually that girl in a hoodie and baggy sweats," she says. "It could be in the hottest room with no air conditioning—Broadway Dance Center in the middle of July—and I will not take that hoodie off, ever. It was psychological. Like taking the hoodie off would take away my magic, my flavor, my swag." But Taja realized that her hoodie wasn't her superpower—it was her insecurity. "After that gig, I was like, you know what? This is how I look," Taja says. "I feel like my eyebrows want to hold hands for the rest of their lives, and I'm going to keep my unibrow!"

Photo by Lee Gumbs

The Kim

Taja's hoodie wasn't just hiding her insecurities, she realized. Her hoodie, her baggy pants, her preferences for suits over dresses were all part of her masculine identity. Her Taja identity. But then, she started to discover, there was another identity within her. An identity named Kim.

"Over the past year and a half, I've been experiencing times where my thoughts aren't my own," Taja explains. "I feel like a completely different person. Like there's this personality shift." She likens it to feeling like a passenger in your own car—with familiar surroundings, but a loss of control and power. She felt it when she was taking classes and the music would turn on, like she wasn't the one doing any of the work as she moved. She calls it an out-of-body experience, one that happened increasingly frequently.

Taja started learning about dissociative identity disorder, and came to realize that this was actually something she had been experiencing—and likely suppressing—for a long time. She was diagnosed by a trauma specialist, who she continues to work with, to this day. "It can lie dormant for years, and then it can really explode," she says. It can also be prompted by trauma, much like what Taja had been through just a few years prior.

She started to forget things, and blamed it on being absent-minded. But soon, Taja noticed she was strongly averse to certain textures and materials. She felt uncomfortable in corners. She didn't leave her home for weeks. She couldn't remember large gaps of time. Once, she thought she had been lying in her bed only to discover that she had left the apartment and been outside on the streets of L.A.—barefoot.

"I was scared to tell anyone," Taja says. "People had recollections of us spending whole nights together and I didn't remember them at all. I didn't even know their names."

Taja worked with her trauma specialist and a life coach, and channeled what she was feeling into a type of superpower. She learned about alters, of which she says she has five. Taja acts as the host, and the alter she feels, sees, or experiences the most is Kim.

Kim is feminine. She is, in Taja's words, "the fully feminine spectrum of how I view myself." Taja is in suits and sneakers; Kim loves dresses and heels. Kim loves to go out; Taja wants to stay in. The recognition of Kim made Taja feel more empowered and confident. And now, Kim is the basis, inspiration, and co-creator for Taja's latest project: KimTV.

The Big Idea

This May, two months into the pandemic-induced isolation, Brian Friedman told Taja about a virtual event he was hosting, where he would be teaching the iconic Britney Spears "I'm a Slave 4 U" choreography. Taja took the class, and was floored by the production, promotion, platform, and community of it all. "It just felt like more," she recalls.

Taja was immediately set into motion. She started dreaming about creating something of her own—an event, a brand, a show, something. That something became TKO Quarantainment, an entertainment company inspired by this time of aloneness. ("TKO" stands for "The Knockout," obviously—but it also stands for "Taja/Kim Owned.")

While many have felt creatively suppressed during this pandemic year, Taja saw an opportunity. "In isolation, I discovered what my potential could be," she says. "I want to use this company as a gateway for other creatives to help tell their stories. To highlight those and spotlight those, especially within the dance industry." Plus, Taja wants to create a network out of TKO Quarantainment—a village of creative people who work together on various projects.

The debut project under the TKO Quarantainment brand is KimTV, which will launch as a three-part series in early 2021. Taja sees KimTV as more than just a TV series. It's a show that exists—much like she does—in multiple dimensions and layers. Something she created for her generation. As she brainstormed ideas for the show, she heard whispers from Kim, she says, saying, "Make it about me." So she did.

KimTV tells the story of Taja's life as a "dissociative identity superhero," she explains. "I see mental health as a super power. We just need to know how we're tapping into it, and to not be scared of it and to really embrace it. We're all created differently, and because of that, we're the same."

Photo by Lee Gumbs

The Next Move

Unsurprisingly, there's no stopping Taja. She's on a mission to help empower the dance community, the Black community, and the LGBTQ community. She wants to help show people what being open about your mental health looks like. She wants to take responsibility as an artist to reflect the times and be accountable.

"I want to see a better world for dancers," Taja says. "I want them to feel well-represented, and valued in the same way athletes are valued. We've always been underpaid, undervalued, and underappreciated behind the scenes. But then on screen, that's what people want—dancers."

She's doing it all, and she's doing it out loud—proudly. "I'm taking this journey publicly, in an exciting and empowering way," Taja says. "I want to promote more adventure than fear and hiding."

All the tips you need to get through the college application craziness (Getty Images/insta_photos)

How to Stay Organized in the Pandemic-Era College Dance Application Process

The college application process can be, well—let's be honest here—downright maddening (#IYKYK). But for dancers, there's an added layer of stress: College dance applicants not only have to get into a school academically, they must also be accepted into its dance program. There's twice as much to prepare for and, on top of that, 2020 has, to say the least, been trying it—are we right?

Fortunately, you can alleviate some of that compounding stress by staying organized. Here are some tips to keep your college-application life in order in an especially hectic season of senior year.


Create a hub for account info

While you'll be able to apply to many schools through the Common Application, know that some schools still use school-specific application software, so chances are, you'll be creating and signing into a bunch of different online accounts. To keep this information organized and easily accessible, create a note on your phone or a password-protected document on your laptop. As you start each new college application, jot down usernames, passwords and pin numbers. By keeping all this information in one spot, you'll spare yourself the anxiety of having to memorize it. (And don't go full mom by using the same password for every. single. account.)

Be clear on the application materials you need for each school

Each of the programs you're auditioning for will likely have different methods for assessing your dancing. Some will prescreen, which means you'll have to submit a photo, usually standing in a ballet position that is specified by the school, or a video—before you're offered the opportunity to actually audition for the dance program. Others may ask for a specific or additional essay that relates to dance. And some—because 2020 has spared no aspect of our lives—have implemented completely new COVID-era protocols.

For the same reasons you should create a hub for all your log-in info, consider making one to establish which application materials you'll need to produce for each school. You can make one spreadsheet for all the schools you're applying to or, in a more tedious but ever-effective move, create a separate checklist for each school. That way, you know you're not forgetting to submit important parts of your application package.

Just imagine how good it will feel to get that coveted acceptance letter. (Getty Images/eyecrave)

Keep photography and filming simple

If a school requires you to submit photos or videos, take the directives about filming seriously. And be sure to respect any creative parameters a school might put on your submissions. The best rule of thumb: Keep it simple. Put on basic dancewear, pull your hair back (no whispies!), photograph head-on, and film without making any edits or adding special effects.

As a bonus, if you keep your videos relatively simple, you may be able to reuse some footage for different applications. Double-check the filming parameters, and see if there's anything you can repurpose for multiple schools.

Know your deadlines

Once you've established a list of schools that you're going to apply to, create a separate spreadsheet for the deadlines of each. (Yes, another spreadsheet!) But remember: As dancers, you don't just have a deadline for the application; you might also have a deadline to register for your audition and even one for submitting photos and videos for prescreening, so be sure to allocate space in your spreadsheet for those important deadlines, too.

Don't wait to ask for recommendations

Your teachers, both dance and academic, are overloaded with work in these crazy times, and on top of that, have students upon students requesting recommendation letters. Try not to be among the students who wait dangerously close to a deadline (you know who you are!) to ask for a rec letter. Instead, consider asking for yours early in the school year (that's right, now). By reaching out early, before mobs of other graduating seniors start asking too, you reduce the likelihood that the person writing your letter might rush through it or write something generic.

Ask someone you trust to read your essays

You've written tons of essays throughout your high school career. But writing a college essay—in which your every word feels like the difference between getting into a school or not—is a whole separate beast, so don't be afraid to have someone you trust (a parent, dance teacher or academic teacher, or maybe even a close friend who's an avid reader) look over your essay(s). In addition to finding grammatical or punctuation errors that you may have missed, they'll, hopefully—and more importantly—be able to tell you if they think your essay genuinely speaks to who you are, because they, more than most people, really know you.

Ava Brooks is an up-and-coming tapper you should have your eye on. (Kaitlin Cooper, courtesy Ava Brooks)

5 Standout Comp Kids You Should Be Following—Now

The competition world is filled with so many talented dancers that for one dancer to stand out, they need something special—not just legs up to their ears or seemingly never-ending turns, but something more. For many comp world standouts, it's a certain, special confidence: The confidence in what they, and only they, can offer.

Dance Spirit spoke with five competition dancers who are embracing what makes them and their dancing unique, and who you should be following (if you aren't already).

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